GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Steve Lemke saw the writing on the wall that his future in athletics was not going to be made on the hardwood.
“It was kind of an easy decision,” said Lemke, a 1979 graduate of Fargo (N.D.) North High School. “There are not many opportunities for a six-foot shooting guard at the college level,”
Basketball’s loss was a coup for the sport of track and field.
Lemke was pretty darn good at throwing the javelin and parlayed that talent into a long coaching career that will come to an end June 14 at the conclusion of the NCAA national track and field championship meet at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore.
The departure of Lemke will end a run of 16 years as an assistant coach at the University of Florida. A school he had a big hand in developing into one of the top collegiate track and field programs in the United States.
“He crushed it,” said UF head coach Mike Holloway when the announcement of Lemke’s retirement was made public in April. “I can replace the coach, but you don’t replace a friend.”
With his basketball career behind him Lemke focused on track as a senior at Fargo North. He was one of the top throwers in the state and entertained offers to compete at the collegiate level.
North Dakota State University, whose campus is just a few blocks away from FNHS, was in a state of flux with the retirement of longtime coach Bruce Whiting and never made it to the top of Lemke’s list for possible destinations.
“NDSU always had a great program,” Lemke explained, “but with (Whiting) leaving there were just so many question marks for me.”
Lemke decided to matriculate to nearby South Dakota State University to continue his throwing career. It turned out to be the best decision.
He would develop into one of the top javelin throwers in the North Central Conference, one of the best NCAA Division II conferences for many years before disbanding not long after NDSU and SDSU eventually transitioned to Division I status.
As a junior Lemke placed second at the NCC meet in Fargo. He moved up the following year to win the conference championship at the meet in Brookings. He went on to earn All-American honors that season for the Jackrabbits.
His plan was to become a high school principal or superintendent.
“I never really thought of doing anything else,” Lemke explained of his career goal.
But coaching got in the way and changed those plans.
After teaching at Washburn High School, a short drive up the highway from North Dakota’s capital city of Bismarck, Lemke enrolled at Southeast Missouri State University to begin work on his master’s degree and work as a graduate assistant under legendary coach Joey Haines, who was inducted into the USTFCCCA Hall of Fame in 2014.
Lemke got his first collegiate coaching job as an assistant at Yale and later coached at UTEP and Arizona.
Those stops only opened more doors for the future Gator legend.
He moved to Australia in 1997 where he coached throws for the Australian and Norwegian national teams until 2005 when the path to Florida blew wide open.
He got a call from then-Florida women’s track coach Tom Jones in early 2005 about an opening on Jones’ staff. Lemke provided little hesitation in accepting the offer.
Lemke’s move back to the United States and to Gainesville was almost stopped before it even happened.
The day before he was scheduled to leave Australian to join the Gators he got another call from Jones. This call was more sobering. Jones told Lemke that the cancer he had been battling had returned.
“I understand if you don’t want to come,” Jones told him.
Lemke held true to his commitment to Jones and the Gators and joined the Florida staff a short time later.
“A year and a half (Jones) passed away,” said Lemke. “That’s how I got here. The best thing I ever did, I think. This is home by far more than any other place.”
The death of Jones marked the beginning of some big changes within the track programs at Florida. Changes that have proven to have been insightful as the Gators have developed into a consistent national power.
Lemke had expressed interest in succeeding Jones as the women’s coach. But, instead, UF athletics director Jeremy Foley made the decision to combine the men’s and women’s programs and tabbed Holloway to lead the Gators while Lemke was tasked with handing the throwers.
“Immediately, (Lemke) said to me, ‘Look, I’m your guy. We can do this together.’” Holloway recalled of a meeting a short time after Foley’s monumental decision.
“He was that guy every day … and is just a good person,” said Holloway, whose trust in Lemke led to him being promoted to associate head coach.
Since the two programs were combined in 2007 Florida has combined for nine men’s indoor or outdoor national championships with Holloway and Lemke leading the charge. Several titles came down to valuable points collected by Lemke’s troops that put the Gators over the top.
The first of those national championships came in 2010 when Florida’s men won the indoor national title.
Both Holloway and Lemke remember looking at one another and saying: “We’ve done it.”
Some of the greatest names in the history of UF throws have Lemke to thank for their development.
Mariam Kevkhishvili won the first of her five national shot-put titles in 2009. His most recent national champion was Thomas Mardal, who won the weight throw at the national indoor meet earlier this year.
In his time in Gainesville, Lemke has coached seven individual national champions on the women’s side – the third-most by any division 1 program during that span. Stipe Zunic won the men’s indoor shot-put title in 2015, giving Lemke eight national champions who have trained under the coaching legend. That number is the fifth-most in Division 1.
So dominating have Lemke’s throwers been that the Florida women are tied for the most Division 1 national titles in the indoor shot put (3) and in the javelin (2). Florida throwers have also added a pair of outdoor shot-put titles to boost that mark to five, which is tied for the national lead since 2006.
Lemke’s coaching resume is seemingly endless with accolades garnered by his athletes. Some of the highlights include 35 men’s (19) and women’s (16) conference indoor and outdoor champions, which is five more than any other program.
Florida throwers have combined for 70 USTFCCCA All-America honors under Lemke’s tutelage. Nine of his former athletes have competed in the Olympic Games over the years and made a combined 15 appearances at the Games. In his 24 years as a collegiate coach Lemke has mentored a total of 13 individual national champions.
Lemke hopes to add a few more All-Americans to his coaching roster in Eugene later this month.
Three Gator throwers advanced out of the recent East Regional qualifying meet to earn a chance at a potential national championship.
Arianne Duare-Morais is the lone Gator to advance to Eugene on the women’s side after qualifying in the javelin. The Gator men will be represented by Thomas Mardal (hammer) and Connor Bardal (shot). Mardal won the hammer throw at the regional meet with a throw of 233-feet, 10-inches, while Bardal placed fourth in his event.
“It was not the career path I though I was going to have when I left SDSU,” Lemke said, “but it’s been a good one.”
“I’ve had a good run,” Lemke said. “I am glad I’m finishing here. I can’t imagine working someplace else. I never really was interested in looking at another job. It’s been fun knowing you have a job that 99 percent of other coaches would love to have.
“Everyone wants to be the Florida Gators, but they would also love to be a Gator,” Lemke stated.
The looming departure of Lemke and what it means to the Florida program is not lost on Holloway.
You would probably call what he’s done here as the glue,” Holloway said. “We never had quite enough to get over the hump .. but the throws kind of became the glue.”
A native of Bismarck, N.D., Ray is a graduate of North Dakota State University where he began studying athletic training and served as a student trainer for several Bison teams including swimming, wrestling and baseball and was a trainer at the 1979 NCAA national track and field championship meet at the University of Illinois. Ray later worked in the sports information office at NDSU. Following his graduation from NDSU he spent five years in the sports information office at Missouri Western State University and one year in the sports information at Georgia Tech. He has nearly 40 years of writing experience as a sports editor at several newspapers and has received numerous awards for his writing over the years. A noted sports historian, Ray is currently an assistant editor at Amateur Wrestling News.